The Origin of Urge

Damon Runyon

To show you how a little thing can influence a man, I will tell you about the shoe trunk I bought when I first came to New York City.

It was a beautifully made thing of some durable wood covered with shining yellow sole leather with lock and hasps of brass the rich color of newly minted gold, a work of art if ever there was one.

It was lined with a soft material like canton flannel and it had compartments for about eight pairs of shoes, each of which could be wrapped in pieces of that same flannel-like material before being stowed away in a compartment. There was a tray that lifted out and under the tray was space for a pair of riding boots.

The whole trunk was amazingly neat and compact and could easily be carried by the leather handle on top or one of the leather handles on either end. It was on display in the window of one of the oldest luggage manufacturing firms in New York City, still in business on Madison Avenue, but then having a store on Fifth Avenue, my memory placing the location along in the 20’s.

The price of the shoe trunk was $65 which is not much more than the price of a shoe shine nowadays but was then a neat sum of money. I venture the opinion that if the same trunk were manufactured now you could not buy it under two hundred dollars. And $65 was the exact amount I received one day from Bob Davis, then editor of Munsey’s, for a short story and it was the most money I had had in my pocket in a long time.

Now I had never seen a shoe trunk before in my life. I had never even heard of one. I had one $3 pair of shoes, which was all I ever owned at one time and I was fresh in from Colorado where one pair of shoes at a clip was deemed ample by most of our citizens, though there were rumors of some with several pairs.

Why my attention was attracted to that shoe trunk was never any great mystery to me because I was always of an inquiring nature and the richness of the leather box probably caught my eye and prompted me to step into the store and ask what it was; but my purchase of the thing puzzles me to this day.

I have a vague feeling that the salesman may have been a trifle superior and perhaps patronizing in his manner as he informed me of the uses of the trunk and that my purchase was in a spirit of defiance of the big town generally—a gesture to show it that I was no neckyoke even if I was a new arrival and that I was not to be intimidated by a shoe trunk. Or maybe I wanted to impress that salesman with the idea that I had been accustomed to buying shoe trunks all my life.

Anyway I plunked down the $65 and told him to stencil my initials in either end and deliver it to a home in Flatbush where I was staying at the time, and incidentally was in the red for board and room deeper than even friendship justified. I shall never forget the expressions of amazement on the faces of my hosts when the shoe trunk arrived the next day, packaged like some great treasure six layers of wrapping paper thick, and were told what it was.

They never said anything in criticism to me about it then or afterwards, though it seems to me that the sheer idiocy of the purchase of an expensive shoe trunk by an impecunious young man with practically his last dollar must have called for some discussion in private. I know I asked myself many a time, Runyon, why the heck did you buy that trunk? I never found a satisfactory answer.

But it served two purposes. It inspired me to greater industry than was my habit to get money to buy enough shoes to fill the trunk and, in the process of acquisition, I paid my board bill. And since that time, whenever I have felt disposed to beef about some foolish action on the part of anyone, I have said to myself, Runyon, remember the shoe trunk.

That is why I did not laugh when big George Godfrey, the Negro heavyweight, bought a huge wardrobe trunk with his first ring earnings some years ago though he had nothing to put in it but a few little articles that made a terrific rattling whenever the trunk was moved around. I imagine George could not have explained the wardrobe trunk any more than I could the shoe trunk, but our motives were probably identical.

I saw the last of the shoe trunk in a pile of refuse in the basement of the house I occupied in Holmby Hills, Los Angeles, over a year ago, the leather cracked and peeling, the sides caved in, the lining moth eaten and the hasps all tarnished, a veteran of many thousands of miles of travel and many years of close association with me, and I said to myself well, Runyon, there goes a memory of daffiness but jiminelly, wasn’t it fun!